The New York Asian Film Festival offers a wealth of fantastic cinema in its Savage Seventeenth edition, being held 29 June–15 July, 2018, in New York City. Among its horror and cult film offerings are the Japanese horror comedy One Cut of the Dead, the long-delayed Malaysian horror effort Dukun, and the Japanese porno-publisher biopic Dynamite Graffitti.
One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na!, 2017) had this reviewer questioning my choice during the first act — that is, until the film introduced a surprise element that took it down an entirely different path, and had me smiling and laughing at its heartwarming, never-say-die message and whimsical humor. The film starts off appearing to be yet another low-budget zombie schlockfest shot with a handheld camera, involving a cast and crew making a zombie movie being attacked by actual living dead creatures (a premise already mined for comedy in the big-hearted 2014 New Zealand outing I Survived a Zombie Holocaust).
To discuss what happens next would be to spoil the delights of One Cut of the Dead, but suffice it to say that its meta approach initially focuses on struggling director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), who berates his lead actress Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) for failing to nail a scene in 42 takes. Makeup artist Nao (Harumi Syuhama) attempts to console Chinatsu and leading man Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya) when real zombies begin dining on crew members, and a crazed Higurashi demands that everything be caught on film. The second act, to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, gives viewers the backstory of the first act, and the third act is a sheer delight that needs to be experienced without prior knowledge of its content.
Writer/director Shinichiro Ueda has crafted a joyous effort that falls somewhere between the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster ride and a magic act. The cast, including actress Mao, who portrays Higurashi’s daughter (also named Mao), are solid throughout. As someone who burned out long ago on zombie fare, this reviewer found One Cut of the Dead to be a splendid example of how imaginative approaches to the living-dead subgenre can prove that there is still much to mine therein.
Malaysian horror effort Dukun (2018) is based on the real-life case of shaman Mona Fandey, who was convicted of murdering politician Datuk Mazlan Idris in 1993. The film, which starts off with a disclaimer about not being based on true events or real people, is set, and was completed, five years after Fandey was sentenced to death in 2001. It was banned by that country’s National Film Censorship Board for 12 years because of concerns regarding insensitivity toward the families of those being portrayed (albeit with fictionalized names and sometimes different jobs).
The movie combines supernatural spookiness with a court procedural, focusing on titular shaman Diana Dahlan (Datin Seri Umie Aida in a mesmerizing performance) and her lawyer Karim (Faizal Hussein in a fine understated turn), a police officer who reluctantly takes on the role of defense attorney. Karim’s wife and daughter have been missing for many years, and he hopes that Dahlan might be able to help him find them.
Dahlan is a fascinating character. She is a beautiful woman who is seductive and confident, just as much at ease making jokes in court as she is at performing mysterious rituals in her home. She insists on wearing makeup and lavish clothes for her court appearances, but when confined, she becomes a wall-licking, seemingly possessed person who terrifies her cellmates. Her behavior during her shamanistic rituals ramp things up even more. Aida is brilliant in her portrayal of Dahlan, and is reason enough to seek out Dukun.
Dain Said, directing from a screenplay by Huzir Salaiman, helms the film nicely, providing eerie, breathtaking sequences of Dahlan practicing her supernatural craft and crawling around her jail cell in a hair-raising manner. The courtroom drama focuses on characters much more so than procedure, so the pacing holds up well throughout. Said has crafted a film that looks fresh enough to have been made today rather than 12 years ago. This suspenseful horror thriller, with a gorgeous color palette and fine performances to bolster its sinister story, is a true gem.
Dynamite Graffiti (Suteki na dainamiato sukyandaru, 2018) is an intriguing dramedy based on the memoirs of porno king Akira Suei, who was the publisher of three successful magazines in 1980s Japan that featured erotic photography and work from celebrated writers. This film shows Suei’s rise from a childhood during which his tuberculosis-ridden mother and her lover blew themselves up with dynamite, to a successful porn purveyor, including his days at design school and nights painting advertising boards for nightclubs.
Tasuku Emoto portrays Suei to great effect with an impish, arch playfulness that is enjoyable to watch, but neither he nor director Masanori Tominaga delve much beyond the surface of the character. The film weaves between tragic stories involving women in Suei’s life, amusing comedy sequences such as women using cellophane tape to approximate the sounds of masturbation during phone sex calls, and relationship drama that shows Suei pursuing women more out of desire and obligation than love.
Indeed, the most sympathetic and fully emotionally realized characters in Dynamite Graffitti are women, especially Machiko Ono’s portrayal of Suei’s suicidal mother Tomiko and Toko Miura as his young mistress and employee Fueko, who is driven to a nervous breakdown that only results in Suei becoming more disinterested in her. None of the characters are truly grounded, and most are drifting from one opportunity to another, such as the photographers and other staff members of Suei’s magazines who talk models into disrobing by insisting that what they are doing is art, to the women who pose for the photos or work for the seedy cabaret industry.
Dynamite Graffiti is an interesting look at how the mores of Japanese society changed between the 1960s and 1980s, both nationally and individually. Tominaga touches on the outwardly conservative standards of the times — including funny scenes involving Suei’s regular interrogations at a local police station by a disapproving officer who looks like he just sucked on a lemon as he examines each magazine page carefully for pubic hair and other infractions — and the youth movement that created change. The film is not meant as a scathing criticism of any person or way of life, though. Like its main character, Dynamite Graffiti drifts along, knowing that it wants to make an impact but never settling on any one way to do so. The film is bound to be divisive and have some viewers perturbed by its moral ambiguity, but it is a well-crafted, capricious effort.
The New York Asian Film Festival is copresented by Subway Cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and takes place from June 29 to July 12 at the Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater, and July 13 to 15 at SVA Theatre in New York City.
One Cut of the Dead stills ©2018 Enbu Seminar.
Dukun stills ©2018 Astro Shaw.
Dynamite Graffiti stills ©2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners.